Hong Kong's investment "Superman" has met his match.
Legendary dealmaker Li Ka-shing is no longer Hong Kong's richest person, a role he has held most of the time since such tallies began.
Mainland-born scientist Zeng Yuqun, who specializes in making batteries for electric vehicles, now holds that honor. Also known as Robin Zeng, he has a personal fortune of US$34.5 billion, according to the latest Bloomberg Billionaires Index. That's good for No. 38 in the world, and on par with the US$35.0 billion war chest of Softbank (SFTBF) founder Masayoshi Son, Japan's highest-profile investor.
Li, who built the conglomerates Cheung Kong and Hutchison Whampoa around property and ports, has a fortune of US$32.9 billion, which places him at No. 43 globally. Having made his money the old-fashioned way, by building bricks and mortar and operating heavy industry, Li has now been supplanted by a new kind of industrialist, whose products charge a new industry: EVs.
Zeng founded Contemporary Amperex Technology (SZ:300750) in 2011. While little-known as a name outside its industry, it supplies many of the world's major electric-car brands. Known in short as CATL, the company makes batteries for Tesla (TSLA) vehicles at the carmaker's new factory in Shanghai, as well as supplying BMW (BMWYY), Volkswagen (VLKAF) , Toyota Motor (TM) , Honda Motor (HMC) and the Chinese owner of the Volvo and Lotus brands, Geely Automobile Holding (GELYF) .
The Shenzhen-listed company's shares have soared 169% since last May, including a 67% surge in a seven-week stretch at the turn of the year. The shares shot up after China's harsh social and economic lockdown ended in a largely successful effort to contain COVID-19. The company returned to profitability as demand rose from its customer base.
China is the world's largest electric-vehicle market, although CATL supplies worldwide and also makes batteries in Germany. It has been the market leader in batteries made for electric vehicles since 2017. CATL's lithium-ion batteries are also used for energy-storage systems, for "smart grid" infrastructure.
Zeng's company is based in his hometown of Ningde, in Fujian Province, a coastal province near Taiwan that has populated many overseas Chinese communities. He emigrated to Hong Kong in 2005 under the Quality Migrant Admission Scheme designed to attract talent to the city. Although Hong Kong is technically part of China, it is a Special Administrative Region, with its own immigration, passports, legal and monetary systems.
Indian businessman Mukesh Ambani, the chairman of the Reliance Industries conglomerate, is currently Asia's richest person, No. 13 worldwide with a US$73.1 billion fortune. At No. 14 globally, the founder of Chinese bottled-water brand Nongfu Springs, Zhong Shanshan, is the richest person in mainland China, worth US$66.7 billion, similar to the wealth of members of the Koch family as well as Walmart's (WMT) Walton family.
Li was also born in the mainland, in Chaozhou, a coastal city with a reputation for hard-working citizens. He fled with his family to Hong Kong at the age of 12, to escape the Japanese invasion of China. An early start making plastics gave him the money to take advantage when Hong Kong's property market plunged during pro-Communist riots and bombings in 1967.
Li's business prowess led to him being dubbed "Superman" in the Chinese press. Later in life, he made prescient investment in Facebook (FB) , Spotify (SPOT) and Zoom Video (ZM) . Now 92, Li has retired from official roles at the conglomerates CK Asset Holdings (CHKGF) and CK Hutchison Holdings (CKHUF) , where he is a "senior advisor" to an empire run by his oldest son, Victor.
Zeng, at 52, is not only CATL's founder and chairman but also continues to oversee its R&D, product design and engineering. He took a doctorate in physics into a job at a state-owned shipbuilder. So far, he has resisted the temptation to branch out from battery making into totally unrelated businesses, the somewhat random path pursued by many mainland Chinese tycoons.
Zeng owns around 25% of CATL, so his fortune has risen as fast as the battery maker's shares, tripling since early 2020. By Forbes calculations, there are 9 billionaires on their rich list that owe their wealth to their holdings in CATL. By comparison, there are eight Facebook billionaires, eight Alphabet (GOOGL) billionaires and eight Walmart billionaires. Only one other company, also Chinese, has ever posted nine billionaires on the list: the world's largest soy-sauce maker, Foshan Haitian Flavouring & Food (SH:603288).